The safe return of eight Shelter Now workers closes one tortured chapter in Afghanistan's recent history. But workers providing food, shelter, and medicine in Afghanistan are not at all certain the nation's next chapter will end as happily.

Relief officials say 1.5 million Afghans will starve by winter's end if they do not receive immediate assistance. At least one dozen Christian aid agencies have entered Afghanistan or wait at the border to help 2 million displaced people in the nation. Officials say another 3 million needy Afghans reside in bordering countries.

"We're scrambling to get shelters in place before people start dying," says Cael Coleman of Shelter Now International (SNI). This aid agency, based in Wisconsin, is not affiliated with the German organization Shelter Now, whose workers were held on charges of proselytism in August.

SNI is constructing shelters at a camp in Herat, northwestern Afghanistan. "There are 200,000 people squatting in the dirt with nothing," Coleman says.

Also in Herat, World Vision International is distributing $1 million worth of food, at the request of the United Nations World Food Program. UNICEF also has asked World Vision to manage a $3.7 million children's nutrition program in four western provinces. Meanwhile, MAP International collected $2.5 million worth of drugs and medical supplies.

Evangelism Unwelcome

In November, Afghan Northern Alliance diplomat Humayun Tandar told reporters that Western aid is welcome as long as Christian and other humanitarian organizations refrain from promoting Christianity. "Proselytism creates tension," Tandar says.

The country of 26 million is 98 percent Muslim. Small communities of Hindus, Sikhs, and Parsees also exist. The country has 48,000 mosques. According to Operation World, there are no church buildings for Afghanistan's estimated 1,000 to 3,000 secret Christians. Mission Handbook listed only two U.S. Protestant agencies in Afghanistan before the current crisis: SNI, which arrived in 1982; and InterServe/USA, in country since 1964.

InterServe/USA's 15 American workers left Afghanistan in August. Ralph Eckardt, its executive director, says teams are evaluating current conditions with a view to returning.

Christian aid workers say they do not intend to evangelize. "We have a policy against [evangelism]," SNI's Coleman says. "We don't carry out missionary work or church planting. That's not our job."

Another agency, the North Carolina-based Samaritan's Purse, is launching its own relief effort in Afghanistan. "We're not going in there [Afghanistan] with any plans to pass out literature or show the Jesus film," says Ken Isaacs of Samaritan's Purse, which is also active in southern Sudan.

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Samaritan's Purse, supported by private donations, is supplying food, blankets, and cooking supplies at two camps in western Afghanistan. "We want our hope and our beliefs to shine through our work."

In November, Muslim Americans and others criticized Samaritan's Purse President Franklin Graham for calling Islam a "wicked religion." Graham clarified himself in a follow-up essay for The Wall Street Journal, saying he was not talking about individual Muslims but about "the terrible deeds that are committed as a result of Islamic teaching."

Americans Heather Mercer and Dayna Curry, working in Kabul for Shelter Now, shared Christian materials despite the possibility of imprisonment or execution. "Eighty percent of the charges against us were false," Curry told reporters after she and others were released.

Curry said members of their team talked with Afghans who asked them about Christianity. Curry said, at one family's request, she had photocopied pages from a book about Jesus and showed the Jesus film. Shelter Now intends to continue its relief work in Afghanistan.

Another group, the International Assistance Mission (IAM), has worked in Afghanistan for 35 years. One member of IAM (who asked not to be named) says the mission won credibility for obeying Taliban rules against bringing in evangelistic literature or films.

"In terms of overt evangelism," the team member says, "our presence was the contrast between the majority religion [Islam] and what Christianity is." But the Taliban closed all IAM programs last August.

International religious broadcasters have moved to provide new Christian programming. There are an estimated 73 radios per 1,000 people in Afghanistan. In October, HCJB World Radio and the Far East Broadcasting Association began beaming Christian broadcasts in Dari—a widely spoken language—into Afghanistan.

HCJB Executive Director Tom Narwold says he hopes the broadcasts will encourage secret Christian believers, who lack any functioning church structures. One aid worker says he knows of a "very dynamic and alive congregation" of 100 Afghan Christians who meet regularly.

Aid workers say that anyone hoping for a new government favoring religious diversity is likely to be disappointed. In 1973, former King Mohammed Zahir Shah ordered the government to bulldoze the country's only church. The building, in Kabul, was for expatriates only.

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"There will be no religious freedom under the new regime," says Isaacs of Samaritan's Purse.

Christian aid workers say their immediate goal is to meet urgent physical needs. "We believe that in our work with displaced people, we need to show the love of Jesus in action," says Harry van Burik, international program director for SNI in Wisconsin. "God reveals himself to people. We only need to be there."

Related Elsewhere

For more on the political and humanitarian situation in Afghanistan, see Yahoo! full coverage and World

Special Report: Afghanistan features ongoing PBS' Online NewsHour coverage of the situation in Afghanistan.

Afghanistan Humanitarian Update includes a look at the refugee situation at a glance, statistics, maps, and analysis. From the UN High Commissioner on Refugees.

The Times, London, Web site has a chart on the ethnic divisions in Afghanistan.

After the controversy over Franklin Graham's comments on Islam, he clarified himself in "My view of Islam" for The Wall Street Journal.

Media coverage of the aid situation in Afghanistan includes:

Groups fear U.S. aid for poorest countries may go to AfghanistanOneWorld US (Dec. 20, 2001)
World Donors to Meet Thursday on Afghan Aid — Reuters (Dec. 19, 2001)
Recipe for Rebuilding: Afghan Muscle, Marine Planning, Lots of DollarsThe New York Times (Dec. 18, 2001)
Disaster looms at refugee camps — BBC (Nov. 7, 2001)
Religious relief group plans hospital for Afghan refugeesThe News & Observer (Oct. 27, 2001)
Relief groups fear time is running outThe Seattle Times (Oct. 25, 2001)
Afghanistan situation 'fragile' says Short — BBC (Oct. 24, 2001)
Threats and confusion at Pakistan borderThe San Francisco Chronicle (Oct. 24, 2001)
Aid agencies fear it is too late for food reliefThe Financial Times (Oct. 17, 2001)

Recent mainstream articles on the future plans for Afghanistan includes:

UN Security Council OKs Afghan Force — Associated Press (Dec. 20, 2001)
Afghans agree to peacekeepers with limited roleBoston Globe (Dec. 20, 2001)
Efforts intensify to agree Afghan force — BBC (Dec. 18, 2001)
Discussions outline future for Afghanistan World leaders, relief groups meetSan Francisco Chronicle (Nov. 21, 2001)
Northern Alliance agrees to UN multi-party talksThe Irish Times (Nov. 21, 2001)
What will Afghan talks produce? — BBC (Nov. 20, 2001)
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Afghanistan Reporter Looks Back on Two Decades of ChangeNational Geographic (Nov. 19, 2001)

Christianity Today articles on the political and relief picture in Afghanistan include:

Aid Workers Urge Foreign Political Intervention in AfghanistanEthnic tensions and frequent violence threaten stabilization in the country. (Nov. 26, 2001)
Agencies Scramble to HelpInternational relief organizations quickly work to aid Afghanistan refugees. (Nov. 26, 2001)
In Perspective: The Friendliest Murderous Militants in the WorldThe Soviet Union, United States, and others helped create Afghanistan's ruling Taliban. Will the world's most Islamic state backfire? (August 30, 2001)

Previous Christianity Today coverage of the Shelter Now detainees held in Afghanistan includes:

Heather Mercer and Dayna Curry Go Home to WacoChurch will send short-term mission to Afghanistan in the spring. (Dec. 11, 2001)
Weblog: Free at Last!All 24 Shelter Now aid workers are going home. (Nov. 15, 2001)
Dayna Curry Will Celebrate Her 30th Birthday in a Taliban PrisonWith trial indefinitely postponed, the future is murky for Shelter Now hostages. (Nov. 2, 2001)
Caught in the CrossfireFamily, churches press for release of American missionaries in Kabul. (Oct. 31, 2001)
Aid Workers Held CaptiveTaliban alleges housing group's staff engaged in evangelism. (August 30, 2001)
Diplomats Receive Visas Into Afghanistan, but Will Only Meet with Officials Over a week after raid on Shelter Germany, future for workers still unclear. (Aug. 13, 2001)

Christianity Today's Opinion Roundup looked at the economic and political conditions that may hurt donations for relief work in Afghanistan and other countries.

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